Thoughts on Surrealism

By Alexandra A Jopp

When the innovations of a movement become routine, artists, poets and writers look for new motifs and sources of inspiration. For instance, Picasso developed an interest in primitivism and colonialism after his 1907 visit to the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris (now the Musee de l’Homme). As the artist wrote:
The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. … I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism-painting. (Foster 91)

The connection between Surrealism and primitivism – African masks, in particular – is not, however, as direct as it might, at first, seem. Unlike Cubism, which had its roots in the discovery of African objects, the automatism that is at the heart of Surrealism has nothing in common with primitive art. African masks and similar items were not products of free improvisation, were not expressions of the unconscious but, rather, were objects that were created according to cultural norms.

In the 1930s, international Surrealist exhibitions were held in many of the world’s major cities, including Copenhagen (1935), New York (1936), London (1936), Tokyo (1937) and Paris (1938). This last exhibition may have been a culminating moment for the movement in Europe. For all of Breton’s energy, for all of his efforts to show that Surrealism was thriving, the movement on the continent was dying. Times had changed. The vitality and passion that accompanies revolution began to diminish with mainstream acceptance. Plus, the movement that grew out of the war to end all wars was being hampered by the beginning of the next war. But Surrealism was not dead. It had found its new motif, its new inspiration. It had moved to America.